Bright, Shiny Ideas

How many times in your life have you seen a cartoon about a better mousetrap? It’s probably hundreds if not thousands, right? It’s so common to the American experience and entrepreneurial spirit that “building a better mousetrap” has become the idiomatic phrase for improving on any manufacturing process. Since coming to this privately-run Texas prison, I’ve learned that MTC has built the better mousetrap when it comes to incarceration. And no, I’m not on their salesforce.

When I was on the Stevenson Unit, run by the TDCJ, one of the articles I wrote was “Keeping It Clean”, an expose of how horribly the laundry was managed and how inefficiently it was run. I’m sure a big part of the problem with that department, as with the agency as a whole, is that they couldn't care less about how much of your money they’re spending to do their job just so long as they get their paychecks. As a result, there was an epic waste of all kinds of materials and supplies, and that doesn’t even get me started on graft and corruption.

For example, Captain Gutierrez was such a schlub, that he wouldn’t let his laundry officers pass out cell towels. Cell towels are not used for drying off, but rather are necessary for cleaning the cell. Since he refused to pass any of them out to the inmates, the inmates would steal regular bath towels and cut them in half to make the cell towels. Security officers who saw these cut up towels are supposed to write the inmate a case for destruction of property. In order to avoid the case, the inmate would clean his cell with the torn towel and then get rid of the evidence by throwing the torn towel in the trash. The unit went through hundreds of towels a month, thousands of towels a year, for no good reason except the laundry captain was a jackass.

By comparison, when several of us inmates came in on chain to the Diboll, the laundry manager told us that if we needed a towel to clean the cell, we could come by any time the department was open and get one. When done, we could put it in the laundry hamper located in our dorm. Next time we needed one, we just go get the laundered towel. Very simple and very money wise.

In fact, the laundry here is better in many ways. Instead of general issues clothing, every inmate has his own uniforms. This instant accountability means I can’t just rip up or stain up my clothes unless I want to wear those messed up clothes around all the time. Each morning, I’m responsible for putting my clothes in a laundry bag that identifies where they belong and to whom they belong. If I have a problem with any of my clothes - a tear, a stain, a new size because the spare tire is getting too much air in it - then I take that article of clothing to the laundry and ask for an exchange. The laundry manager will look at my clothes and determine the need for change. This eliminates so much waste, I can’t even begin to describe it.

Thread is a hard thing to get in here. After all, we’re not even supposed to have a needle, you see. Since you can’t buy a spool of thread at the commissary, convicts will get it out of the hems or waistbands of their clothes. Machine-sewn clothing makes it easy to do, because once you know how to pull the thread, it will pretty much unravel all the way around easily, and then you just wrap it up on your own spool, and you’re good to go. Sadly, the garment that you just took the thread from is not as good to go as it once was. With pants or boxers, you can get a couple of really good lines of thread, and the garment will still be serviceable since there are four lines of sewing holding it in place. However, most of these fellows have no qualms about taking the third and fourth row, leaving the waistband shot.

When I was a sewing machine operator, I must have sewn-in ten thousand new elastic waistbands in my time there, and it wasn’t long. Not only that, but the unit only had 1,385 inmates. No telling how much material these bigger units go through. And elastic is not cheap, even if thread is. They’d be better off realizing which way is up and selling thread on the commissary.

Or, they could do it like MTC. If I bring my pants over to the laundry and ask for a new pair, but the waistband is blown out because all the thread is gone, I’m going to be getting a case. And if there’s any money on my commissary account, they’re about to get a chunk of it to pay for the repair or replacement of those pants. Now folks, that’s just plain common sense. Even better, I don’t even need the thread, because they’ll fix whatever is wrong with my clothes in the first place. That’s what we like to call a win-win situation. They save a ton of money, and the inmates get wearable clothing. I hope not too many people get wind of all this, or the whole dang prison system might be privatized. Then they’re locking up Boy Scouts (or whatever they are) for saying the pledge just to fill the place up. Come to think of it, I wonder if MTC can take over the Parole Board. THERE’S an agency that could use a takeover.

The Diboll laundry is not only responsible for my clothes, but they also provide my bedding. For the first time in 13 years, I am sleeping on a pillow. Now, don’t get all lathered up talking about how we inmates are living in the lap of luxury. My pillow is a little smaller than what my girlfriend used to throw on her couch. But let me tell you, friend, how marvelous a pillow feels after so many years. I’ve used clothes, rolled up blankets, a jacket, even an old pair of shoes for a pillow. I understand why Jacob used a rock for a pillow as he was wandering around the Promised Land. I am really grateful for mine.

The thing that makes Diboll Laundry so much superior to any other I’ve worked in or experienced is a simple little idea - the laundry bag. The bag is made of mesh, and when you first come on the unit, they put your information on a label sewn to the side and it becomes yours. During the week, you can put your dirty uniform and up to two personal articles of clothing in the bag and deposit it in the hamper. Every morning at six o’clock, this cart is pushed over to the laundry and everything is washed. No clothes leave the bag, because it is tied shut when you drop your clothes. What you put in is what you get back. About eleven o’clock or noon, the cart comes back with bags and bags of clean clothes. These are passed out to the cells using the information on the labels, and just like that, you have clean clothes.

There is the better mousetrap. There is no opportunity for anyone to steal clothes from the laundry. Everyone takes care of their clothes, because they have to keep wearing them. Since they wash two personal items, no one is hijacking the mop bucket to turn it into a washer all day, or, worse, washing their clothes in the toilet like so many prisoners do. This is almost what we in the civilized world like to call “kindness”. The TDCJ better be careful.

Speaking of the TDCJ, how come they’ve had over 180 years to figure this out, and they’re still not doing it right? But along comes this little company from Utah, and just like that, laundry is reduced to the simplest formula and not only gets the job done, but does it in such a way as to benefit the agency AND the inmate.

During the last round of Texas’s budget cuts, the prison system experienced a real beating. Well, I should say, the prisoners took a real beating, because all the “cuts” they made just so happened to be things that directly affected the prisoners. They cut food portions. They took away one of two desserts served each week at the time. They did away with just about all the condiments they’d previously served with the meals. Although I don’t know how MTC’s budget is affected by such events, I do know they’ve figured out how to take the sting out of some of these cuts and still come out ahead. On my last unit, we had a Sergeant named Wallace. This guy was a real Dudley Do Right. So zealous, as a matter of fact, that if you were to commit the sin of bringing a little eye dropper to chow with some hot sauce in it for your food, he’d make this big show out of catching you using it and try to make an example of you. That’s TDCJ, folks. MTC, on the other hand, encourages their inmates to bring whatever condiments they’d like to the chow hall to spice up the food. The food tastes better. The chow hall saves money. AND, the commissary makes a few extra dollars, because we sure don't mind buying some salad dressing or some ketchup if they’re going to let us use it. They don’t even care if you want to take some crushed up potato chips down there or little stuff like that. Once again, they’ve found a solution that benefits everybody. Even those who don’t make store get blessed, because once a bottle is open, it goes around the table.

Now, my friends, get a load of this. There are rules that we as inmates have to follow, of course, and one of those rules is that we can’t traffic or trade items. I’ve told you before how just about every inmate breaks this rule, whether he’s looking out for his buddy that doesn’t get any commissary money or giving some bookie his soups so he gets a shot at the big pot on football day. From time to time and for various reasons, prisoners will get caught with this contraband in their locker, and when it is discovered, the property officer takes it away. When I was in the TDCJ, I never saw any of this food recovered in any way. It just “disappeared”. But, I have my suspicions about where it went, after all, those TDCJ guards just can’t seem to stay out of the commissary window. It’s like they don’t have any Walmarts or 7-Elevens out there.

However, I think I’ve discovered what happens to that confiscated property on this unit. A couple of weeks ago, they posted a sign on the bulletin board. It read, “Come play BINGO. Prizes will be awarded for each game.” We didn’t know what to expect, but when we got down there, they were giving away bags of commissary to the winners of the BINGO games.

Did you ever see The Shawshank Redemption? There’s the scene where Andy has talked the officers into getting him and his roofing crew some bottles of brew to reward them for the hard work they’ve done. It’s a surreal moment in the movie, because it’s a free-world joy that all of these fellows are experiencing while incarcerated. That’s almost exactly how I felt getting to go down there and play BINGO. There were only about five prizes, and there were probably a couple of hundred guys trying to win them. I wasn’t one of them, by the way. But, just to be there, seeing such a sight and being part of it, was great. It was a reminder that I’m human with a life to be lived beyond these walls. And it didn’t come from my family or my friends. It didn’t come through a visit or a phone call. It came through an event sponsored by the people here in charge of keeping me in jail, and that is what made it so special.

More than anything else, I want these stories that I tell to convince people that the way TDCJ does prison is broken beyond repair and isn’t helping any inmate recover or rehabilitate. If this wasn’t true, I wouldn’t be trying to tell you about it, because you could too easily discover for yourself I was mistaken. There is not much more that I could do to prove this than MTC is doing here at Diboll.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez